Santos Vies for Re-Election on FARC Peace Deal Mirage

April 24, 2014

April 28, 2014: The plan was that the prospect of an imminent peace deal with the Marxist rebels to end 50 years of civil conflict would effortlessly propel incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos to a second term. Events are not going to plan. And while Santos will obtain enough votes on May 25 to reach the second round, a victory in August is not guaranteed.

The peace process is no longer the central electoral issue, not least because the other candidates say they would continue negotiations. This includes Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, the puppet candidate of former president Alvaro Uribe, the peace process’ harshest critic. The only caveat for Uribe and Zuluaga is “Peace without Impunity”; voters know that, in the unlikely event Zuluaga won, negotiations would probably die.

Uribe’s Democratic Centre party won 31 seats in March’s congressional elections but this has not radically altered the political balance. Santos, with his alliance of the Liberal Party, the U Party and Cambio Radical, still controls the House of Representatives, although he is shy of a majority in the Senate. Santos may be able to buy some Conservative senators to push through his legislative agenda.

What might definitively win Santos a second presidency is if the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) declared that peace was inevitable should the president win re-election. However they would want a bilateral ceasefire in return, a request they have made since talks began in October 2012. Yet the president may not be able to grant this. Even the FARC’s unilateral Christmas ceasefires have not been reciprocated.

The biggest opponents to a bilateral ceasefire are the armed forces, which argue that a bilateral ceasefire would undo the advances made over the last decade. It could allow FARC to restore their battered command and control system; reorganize their finances; rotate commanders; rebuild morale; and impart new and detailed orders to the leaders of remote fronts who have had little contact with the rebels’ high command, the Secretariat, since the collapse of the last peace process in 2002. The military’s claims are well founded. The guerrillas have historically used peace negotiations to build up their military strength.

Yet all is not well in the military. In February it was revealed that elements of army intelligence had tapped the phones and emails of the government negotiating team in Havana. The same month six generals were sacked amid accusations of corruption and in relation to the “false positives” scandal, which during the Uribe government saw soldiers kill more than 1,000 civilians, often homeless people, then dress them in guerrilla uniforms and claim results.

If a peace agreement is signed, the army will be the biggest loser. Colombia will not need a standing force of around 300,000 soldiers to defend it from outside threats. A significant reduction in budget would be inevitable. And the big winners of a peace deal would be the army’s greatest rival, the police. Santos wants to remove the police from the Ministry of Defense and set them up in their own ministry, which would strengthen the former and weaken the latter.

Despite the optimism emanating from the Havana talks, a peace agreement is neither inevitable nor imminent. All negotiations have been behind closed doors. While the government insists that two of the six agenda points have already been resolved – on land and political participation – no details have been provided.

Yet sources in Havana say that on the issue of land, the FARC have demanded up to 42 Peasant Reserve Zones – semi-autonomous areas akin to indigenous reserves which would be home to up to two million Colombians. Effectively the rebels expect to be given large swathes of the country to legalize their holdings, house their fighters and build up their political base.

And in regards to political participation, no mention is made of the rebels’ demand for at least eight guaranteed seats in Congress. This is derived from FARC’s experience following the 1990 elections when their political party the Patriotic Union won seats but was then decimated after up to 4,000 party members were killed by right-wing paramilitaries, drug traffickers and rogue elements of the military. None of this has reached public debate and would be a hard sell to the electorate.

The current issue on the table in Havana is drug trafficking. Not the millions of dollars earned from cocaine and the perhaps insurmountable obstacle of the US extradition orders for the entire FARC high command. Just crop substitution programs.

Both sides know that, in order not to cast doubt or controversy over the talks, no progress can be made during the election campaign. So talks will only begin again in earnest after August and the second round of voting. Santos’s boast that a deal is likely before the end of the year if he wins his second term is simply an electoral mirage.

Meanwhile, what nobody is addressing is that the government is negotiating with a very different FARC from that with which Andres Pastrana engaged (1999-2002); and a very different FARC from that which the rebel founding leader Manuel Marulanda presided over until his death in 2008.

The government takes great delight in charting the decline of FARC’s guerrilla fighters, down from 16,000 in 2002 to 6,600 today. But these are uniformed guerrillas. What the government omits to mention are FARC’s militiamen, who have grown to 30,000.

Neither does the government address FARC’s grassroots political work in their areas of influence.

This political infrastructure would be a positive factor if a peace agreement were signed and the rebels transformed into a mainstream political party in line with the long tradition of Colombian insurrections.

But it is a very dangerous development if the conflict enters its 51st year and the army faces an enemy it cannot locate because its militia do not wear uniforms and instead live comfortably hidden within the bosom of the civilian population.